Filmmaker Adam Christing saw the opportunity for a history lesson when former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney jumped into the 2008 presidential race. “People don’t know that Joseph Smith also ran for president,” says Christing, who argues that Smith’s campaign was the direct cause of the Mormon prophet’s 1844 assassination. The tremendous political and military power that he built during his lifetime fueled a rabid anti-Mormonism that many observers believe is Romney’s greatest political obstacle, a topic that Christing explores in the documentary A Mormon President, set for DVD and television release in early 2008. “Just as it was those forces that thwarted Smith’s campaign and ultimately his life,” says Christing, “it’s the big hurdle that Mitt will have to overcome if he’s going to win.”
What do you think is at the core of anti-Mormon sentiment? It’s not just the history of polygamy, is it?
No, it’s a lot deeper than that. I really think it goes back to Joseph Smith’s original claim, which was essentially that all other churches were false and his church was true.
For a religion, especially a newer religion, to say, We’re the one true faith and to have that sense of being special, that’s not too unusual in America.
Smith’s claim was unique in that the other ones would say, We’re better or we have more truth, whereas Joseph Smith was saying I have the truth, and not only are all the other churches wrong, but God is still giving me new scriptures, and this is where I think Mitt, who will almost certainly play the Catholic card, the John F. Kennedy card, I should say ... but for most Christians in America — Catholic, Protestant — they think of it as all sort of in the same neighborhood, whereas when they think of Mormonism — and I think the additional scriptures are a big factor — they think, Wow, this is something completely different.
A lot of the anti-Kennedy, anti-Catholic sentiment at the time of his campaign centered around this notion that if you got Kennedy for president, the Pope would be calling the shots from Rome.
And we sensed some of that. We interviewed a woman, Helen, in Nauvoo, which was Joseph’s city he built before his death. She has with her husband Rocky created a visitors center that she wants to be the alternative — it’s not Mormon, Mormons would call it anti-Mormon — but she claims, and there’s some backup for this, but she says a Mormon, if he were elected president, would take his orders from Salt Lake City. She refers people to what has been called the White Horse prophecy, where Joseph Smith apparently said the constitution of the United States would be hanging by a thread and that the elders of Israel would come and basically save the day. And that prophecy is really embedded in the Mormon psyche.
Joseph Smith consolidated a lot of power in his own person. That’s a legitimate constitutional concern, but you’re maybe trying to separate those types of concerns from an irrational fear of the religion itself.
We’re really exploring that. It’s pretty obvious that Mitt is not about theocracy like Joseph was, but we’re also exploring, Is there something inherent about the Mormon church that has a quest for the White House? Joseph had a “council of 50,” he called it, that turned missionaries — there were about 300-and-some-odd missionaries — into electioneers and they went out campaigning for president. And there is some fear that non-Mormons have that the missionary system, which is gigantic, would become more politicized, because in Mormonism, unlike other religions — and I think this is actually a positive thing, but it’s interesting — spirituality is more than going to church or praying, it has a secular or political dimension to it, and again that goes back to Joseph, where he’s being annointed as God’s king over Israel while at the same time he’s running for president.
Your movie might also be surprising for some Mormons, you’ve said, because you don’t shy away from the fact that `Joseph Smith` secretly had 30 wives.
Well, it’s hard to disentangle Joseph’s politics from his practice of polygamy. For one, they were happening at the same time. Second, the thing that really killed his political campaign was when William Law printed his Nauvoo Expositor. `Law` was an insider, he was in Joseph’s first presidency, basically second in command, and when he turned sour on Joseph he criticized two things mainly: One was his polygamy, and second was his political ambitions. So to really tell the Joseph Smith story I felt like you had to tell both. I also think that polygamy has much more relevance than even Mitt has admitted. Mitt has called polygamy “bizarre,” but that’s like calling your own grandparents weird, because his great-grandparents were polygamists. They went to Mexico to avoid the American law against polygamy, and gosh, I don’t envy Mitt. I have great respect for him on many levels, I think he’s a wonderful candidate, but this seems like one of the biggest obstacles a candidate would ever have to jump over. •
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